THE LATE MATHIAS PASCAL (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 505). A tinted restoration of this film was presented at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato with a beautiful, large-orchestra score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock a few years back, and I must say that this very impressive presentation substantially transformed my original skepticism, fully demonstrating how much difference a serious archival restoration can make. And Flicker Alley has brought out this version on a lovely Blu-Ray, which I can heartily recommend. – J.R.

Feu Mathias Pascal
(The Late Mathias Pascal)

France, 1925
Director: Marcel L’Herbier

Miragno, Italy. Acting on behalf of herself, her son Mathias and her sister-in-law Scolastique, Maria Pascal authorises agent Batta Maldagna to sell her property; worried about her debts, he sells it at one-sixth its value. Mathias’ shy friend Pomino, secretly in Iove with Romilde Pescatore, asks Mathias to propose to her on his behalf at a village fête. Discovering that she is-in love with himself, Mathias marries her instead, but soon finds his life made miserable by his shrewish mother-in-law, who holds sway over Romilde. He goes to work at the chaotic municipal library, where his time is largely spent contriving to catch rats. After the nearly simultaneous deaths of his mother and infant daughter, he flees to Monte Carlo, where, by following the advice of a gambler who tells him to bet on 12, he unexpectedly wins a fortune.… Read more »

JERRY LEWIS IN PERSON

A book review published in the Village Voice (January 25, 1983). The version below restores some of the details deleted by an editor. — J.R.

JERRY LEWIS IN PERSON

By Jerry Lewis with Herb Gluck

Atheneum, $14.95

As a longtime Lewis fan who has lived in Paris, I have less curiosity about the French passion for him than most Americans. The unbridled sweep of the all-American ego at its most infantile and traumatized has always been an object of awe and fascination for the French; think of their celebrations of Poe and Faulkner, H.P. Lovecraft and Orson Welles. Call Jerry Lewis “America” (or vice versa) and you have a recognizable psychosexual object that signifies something more than slapstick and telethons. You also have an explanation for why some part of us despises the man — for rubbing our noses into potential traumas we claim to have outgrown, postulating his hysterical comedy as the literal cutting edge of our equilibrium.

One doesn’t ordinarily turn to an as-told-to show-biz memoir for extended self-analysis. But Jerry Lewis In Person exudes an uncomfortable candor that may actually endear Lewis to some of his detractors, while making admirers like me squirm a bit. The childhood sections which predictably dominate depict not only the lonely New Jersey misfit I expected, but also the street-smart chutzpah of a semi-abandoned tough guy who dreamt of murdering his grandfather, killed his cat in a rage when he was five, hated his show-biz parents for not even showing up to his bar mitzveh, and habitually socked anti-Semites and other wise guys (including his high school principal) in the mouth.… Read more »

Fear of Feminism [FATAL ATTRACTION]

This is one of the first hatchet jobs that I wrote for the Chicago Reader, which ran on October 2, 1987.  – J.R.

FATAL ATTRACTION

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Written by James Dearden

With Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, and Stuart Pankin.

“A profoundly uninteresting married yuppie lawyer (Michael Douglas) has a weekend affair with a profoundly uninteresting unmarried yuppie book editor (Glenn Close). The latter proves to be insane and makes the former’s life a living hell as soon as he ends the relationship, and the plot gradually turns into a sort of upscale remake of The Exorcist, with female sexuality (personified by Close) taking over the part of the Devil, and yuppie domesticity (personified by Douglas, wife Anne Archer, and daughter Ellen Hamilton Latzen) assuming the role of innocence. While billed as a romance and a thriller, the movie strictly qualifies as neither. The major emotions appealed to are prurient guilt, hatred, and dread; and with director Adrian Lyne shoving objects like a knife, a boiling pot, and an overflowing bath in the spectator’s face to signal that Something Awful’s Going to Happen, he can’t be expected to display any curiosity about the motivations of the spurned antiheroine, who eventually becomes, simply, an extraterrestrial robot killer.… Read more »

Reel Life: Richard Pena’s Film Center Testament

From the May 13, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The notion of the “testament” — the final work of a major filmmaker — is an important one to film lovers. It can be traced back to the 60s, specifically to the French New Wave and the forging in this country of the concept of the film auteur, a time when these and related phenomena were altering the official canons of movie culture. Starting next Tuesday, May 17, the Film Center of the Art Institute will present a weekly series of testaments to run through the end of June.

A lot of the movies included in “Testaments: Final Films of the Great Directors” were getting their first releases back in those days. And almost invariably, they were dying at the box office and at the hands of most mainstream reviewers, while a team of passionate and informed enthusiasts were singing their praises. Bloody religious wars were waged over these movies; in most cases, they’re still being waged.

Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), for example, and John Ford’s Seven Women (1966) are movies that separate the sheep from the goats as far as aficionados of their directors are concerned.… Read more »

Hollywood Types [THE MODERNS]

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 1988). — J.R.

THE MODERNS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Written by Rudolph and Jon Bradshaw

With Keith Carradine, Linda Fiorentino, Geneviève Bujold, Geraldine Chaplin, Wallace Shawn, Kevin J. O’Connor, and John Lone.

For its first hour, at least, The Moderns gives us an Alan Rudolph very nearly back at the top of his form, on a level that approaches that of his two masterpieces, Remember My Name and Choose Me. The effort isn’t sustained — and the movie encounters a number of booby traps, emerging more than a little battle scarred — but it still qualifies as far and away the most ambitious Rudolph movie to date. Painters and art critics who were offended by the treatment of art forgery in Orson Welles’s F for Fake will probably be even more outraged by Rudolph’s tracing of related ironies, set in what purports to be the Paris of 1926. But those who are will be missing something enjoyable.

Fundamentally a gifted stylist with only a couple of effective stories to tell — usually “romantic” yarns that progressively unravel their own artificiality, inviting the viewer to reassemble them — Rudolph has had an unusually scattered and elusive career.… Read more »

Light Fantastic [THE LIGHTED FIELD]

From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 1988). Note: The Andrew Noren stills are copyrighted by his estate. — J.R.

THE LIGHTED FIELD

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Andrew Noren.

I’m a light thief and a shadow bandit. I deal in retinal phantoms. Film is illusion, period, however you choose to see it — shadows of human delights and adversities or raging conflicts of emulsion grains. We see only “films” of films, as all of our sight and sensing is illusion, the phantom movies of our encounter with the world, which, remember, is equally phantom, trompe l’oeil of that clown and ghostmeister, the sun.

The lovers, light and shadow, and their offspring space and time are my themes, working with their particularities is my passion and delight. — Andrew Noren

The difference between narrative and nonnarrative filmmaking is a little bit like the difference between team sports and individual exercise. In contrast to a collective game with a beginning, a middle, and an end, personal exercise tends to be more rhythmically repetitive, involved more with process and with cycles than with development, and moves with a steadier pulse that eschews the more unpredictable dynamics of drama and suspense.

Andrew Noren’s lovely 59-minute The Lighted Field — part five of his ongoing work The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, which has engaged him over the past two decades — belongs mainly to the nonnarrative realm.… Read more »

A Road Not Taken (The Films of Harun Farocki)

It was shocking to learn that Harun Farocki (January 9, 1944 – July 30, 2014) died at the age of only 70. According to Artnet, he made over 90 films. He will be sorely missed.

From the Chicago Reader (February 14, 1992). — J.R.

FILMS BY HARUN FAROCKI

The paradox is that Farocki is probably more important as a writer than as a filmmaker, that his films are more written about than seen, and that instead of being a failing, this actually underlines his significance to the cinema today and his considerable role in the contemporary political avant-garde. . . . Only by turning itself into “writing” in the largest possible sense can film preserve itself as “a form of intelligence.”

— Thomas Elsaesser, 1983

The filmography of Harun Farocki — a German independent filmmaker, the son of an Islamic Indian doctor   — spans 16 titles and 21 years. To the best of my knowledge, only one of his films (Between Two Wars) has ever shown in North America before now. A traveling group of 11 films put together by the Goethe-Institut began showing in Boston last November and this April will reach Houston, the last of the tour’s ten cities.… Read more »

OCCASIONAL WORK OF A FEMALE SLAVE (with Yehuda Safran, 1975)

Cowritten by Yehuda Safran (a lecturer in the philosophy of art with whom I was sharing a flat in Hamstead at the time), and published in the Winter 1974/75 issue of Sight and Sound. It seems fair to say that this review (from the 1974 London Film Festival) is in some ways more Yehuda’s than mine. Note: This film has more recently been called Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave in some English-speaking countries. -– J.R.

Occasional work

‘Roswitha feels an enormous power within her,’ Alexander Kluge remarks offscreen at the outset of his latest feature, ‘and cinema teaches her that this power exists.’ The task of making the invisible visible is essentially the project of a director more concerned with social and political history than with film history, who seems to regard his work as a translation of ideas into sounds and images rather than the other way round. What matters is what the words and images ‘say’ and imply in relation to each other -– not their independent formal qualities, but their capacity of modify and explicate a complex experience.

What do Kluge’s opening words say and imply? That film is a means of translating potentiality into actuality, feeling into thought, experience into understanding –- the very problem that Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) is struggling to cope with over the film’s duration.… Read more »

Tabu

From the August 2, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

tabu-f-w-murnau-cine-ibere-fundacao-ibere-camargo

tabu2

The last film of F.W. Murnau, who was probably the greatest of all silent directors (he didn’t live long enough to make sound films, as he died in an auto accident only a few days after work on the musical score of this masterpiece was completed). Filmed entirely in the South Seas with a nonprofessional cast and gorgeous cinematography by Floyd Crosby (fully evident in this fine restoration), this began as a collaboration with the great documentarist Robert Flaherty, who still shares credit for the story, though clearly the German romanticism of Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise) predominates, above all in the heroic poses of the islanders and the fateful diagonals in the compositions. The simple plot is an erotic love story complicated by the fact that the young woman becomes sexually taboo when she is selected by an elder (one of Murnau’s most chilling harbingers of doom) to replace a sacred maiden who has just died. The two “chapters” of the film are titled “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” and another theme is the corrupting power of “civilization”  – money in particular — on the innocent hedonism of the islanders.… Read more »

Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left For The East?

From the June 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Why-Has?

A much more serious treatment of Buddhism than Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, this 1989 Korean feature by Bae Yong-kyun (who produced, directed, shot, and edited) has become something of a cult film, and it’s easy to understand why. The title is an unanswerable Zen koan, at one point echoing the narrator’s queries: Who is Buddha? Who isn’t he? The skeletal plot concerns an old master, a young disciple, and an orphaned boy in a remote Korean monastery in the mountains, but the film’s main offering is its contemplation of and inexhaustible fascination with the natural world; indeed, we periodically have the sensation that the narrative has been suspended almost entirely for the sake of this meditation. Full of ravishingly beautiful images rather than ravishingly beautiful shots, the film conveys not so much a filmic intelligence as a Buddhist intelligence that’s being translated, step-by-step, into movie terms; the film seems to reach us from a certain remove, with positive as well as negative consequences. Count on something slow, arresting, and lovely, and if you’re looking for drama, expect to find it internally. 135 min. (JR)

WhyHasRead more »

Never Too Late [on a Carl Dreyer retrospective]

Posted on Artforum‘s web site (March 12, 2009). — J.R.

One reason why it never seems like an inappropriate time to have a Carl Theodor Dreyer retrospective is that most of his films haven’t dated, even though reactions to his works have fluctuated quite a bit over the years. Based on my own experiences in recently showing his 1943 Day of Wrath to students, I would venture that fewer spectators nowadays are likely to regard the film’s slow tempo as intolerable the way that the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther did over sixty years ago. (“Dreyer has kept his idea so obscure and the action so slow and monotonous that the general audience will find it a bore,” he claimed.)

One might go further and argue that unlike most other film masters who started out in the silent era, Dreyer’s major works were not only cinematically ahead of their own times; without ever becoming quite contemporary, they’ve even remained slightly ahead of ours. There are multiple reasons for this, including his penchant for making highly personal adaptations of preexisting works, most of them period films; his dialectical camera movements, in which he simultaneously pans and tracks in opposite directions; and, during the sound era (when he was generally able to make only one feature per decade), his unorthodox preference for using direct sound inside studio settings.… Read more »

Resistance Is Futile

From the May 26, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Army of Shadows

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, and Serge Reggiani

Around 1971 Jean-Pierre Melville said, “I sometimes read (I am thinking of the reviews after Le Samourai and Army of Shadows), ‘Melville is being Bressonian.’ I’m sorry, but it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian.”

Melville’s assertion — echoed by critic André Bazin and allegedly by Robert Bresson himself — may seem startling. Melville is best known for his eight noir features, all of them stylish and artificial in a way that seems utterly foreign to the more physical and neorealistic surfaces of Bresson’s work. But these differences are ultimately superficial. What the two filmmakers have in common is much more important: the styles, themes, and philosophical positions of both can be traced directly to their experiences during World War II.

Bresson spent nine months in a German internment camp in 1940-’41, before the occupation of France, and his imprisonment is alluded to in one of his greatest films, A Man Escaped (1956). Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, joined the resistance in the early 40s — changing his Jewish surname to Cartier and then Melville in homage to Herman Melville — and three of his 13 features, all made after the war, deal with the German occupation.… Read more »

Lanzmann’s Second Thoughts: THE LAST OF THE UNJUST

From the February 2014 Artforum; their title was “Beyond Good and Evil”. — J.R.

Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, 2013, 16 mm and 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 218 minutes. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein.

 

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, the latest of Claude Lanzmann’s footnotes and afterthoughts to his 1985 masterpiece, Shoah, functions even more than that earlier film as a dialectical palimpsest, so its successive layers — which remain in perpetual dialogue with one another — should be identified at the outset:

December 1944: Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi, is appointed by the Nazis as the third (and last) Jewish “elder” of Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czech), a “model” or “showcase” ghetto set up in the former Czech Republic in 1941, his two predecessors having been executed the previous May and September. Murmelstein retains this position through the war’s end. Then, after spending eighteen months in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis, he is acquitted of all charges (although still widely despised as a traitor) and moves to Rome.

1961: Murmelstein publishes a book in Italian, Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann, describing the suffering of the ghetto’s inhabitants.

1975: Lanzmann films an interview with Murmelstein over a week in Rome — the first interview that he films for Shoah, although he later decides to discard it, donating the unedited footage to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.Read more »

The Potent Manic-Depressiveness of LA LA LAND

emma-stone-ryan-gosling-la-la-land

I was too late in catching up with La La Land to have included it in my best-of-the-year lists for Sight and Sound and Film Comment, where it likely would have figured in both cases. But one telling aspect of the movie that I find missing from the reviews that I’ve read is just how desperate its euphoria turns out to be — which is not an argument against this euphoria but a statement of what gives rise to it and what makes it so poignant. Of course this is a fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat. The most salient thing about the musical numbers here is how they figure as interruptions to misery and diverse irritations and frustrations — interruptions that are typically interrupted in turn by the hell of a freeway traffic jam or the anguish of a failed audition.  

La-La-Land

This is what makes the singing and dancing seem absolutely necessary, not merely a simple flight from unpleasantness.… Read more »

What (Do) We Mean by Frank Cinema–and is That a Question or a Statement?

Commissioned by MUBI Notebook for November 18, 2019. — J.R.

pull-my-daisy

“How much of this film is composed, and how much is improvised?” The obvious question posed by Robert Frank’s first film (coauthored by painter Alfred Leslie), Pull My Daisy (1959), is also posed, sometimes less obviously, by the authored and coauthored Frank films that follow it—an unwieldy filmography that has on occasion become even harder to access because of the unwieldy ways it was financed or put together. (Most notoriously, Cocksucker Blues, produced by the Rolling Stones to chronicle their own 1972 North American tour, has been banned by them from most venues.) To wonder whether they’re Frank or frank is arguably another way of interrogating their relative degrees of sincerity or subterfuge, non-fiction or fiction, single or collective authorship. And it’s ultimately our call whether any given shot in a Frank film corresponds to a declarative statement or a question—something that might also apply to his better known, more celebrated, and noncollaborative still photography. “After seeing these pictures,” wrote Jack Kerouac of The Americans, “you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.” But whereas most or all the Frank photographs I’ve seen are recognizably his, each successive Frank film is a reinvention of what the art of film might consist of.… Read more »